- The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought
The essays collected in this volume originated in a 1995 CUNY conference devoted to the revival of pragmatism. Morris Dickstein organizes the twenty-five contributions into philosophical, sociological, legal, and cultural fields, domains that pragmatism has decisively changed in recent years. But reading his introduction, one wonders why the book is entitled The Revival of Pragmatism. Dickstein’s descriptions of pragmatism do not revive Peirce’s, James’s, or Dewey’s conceptions of pragmatism. Pragmatism began as a method for ascertaining the meaning of concepts (Peirce), for deciding the truth of rival beliefs when other methods failed (James), or for converting concepts into instruments of adaptation (Dewey). It did not bear directly upon social questions, utopian principles, democratic politics, or bare utility. Peirce meant the term “pragmatic” not in the ordinary sense of useful, but in the Kantian sense of “pertaining to experience.” Likewise, James meant the term “useful” (and “satisfaction”) primarily in a cognitive sense, not a personal sense, as when a concept helps make a phenomenon intelligible, not when it enhances pleasure (though the latter is an effect of the former). And Dewey, in papers written just after 1900, based his pragmatism not on democratic agendas, but on an instrumental psychology outlined in earlier studies such as the famous “Reflex-Arc” essay.
Dickstein’s introduction and many of these “new essays” offer portraits of pragmatism that gainsay Peirce, James, and Dewey’s formulations. Dickstein says, “For pragmatists the upshot of thought comes not in logical distinctions or intellectual systems but in behavior, the translation of ideas into action” (p. 2), and then cites Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” That Peirce, a committed logician, believed thought was an inferential process, that he constructed numerous intellectual systems (mathematical, semiotic, phenomenological), and that “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” argues for the centrality of logic in discussions of human behavior are points that are lost here. Dickstein proceeds to say that pragmatism marks “the turn away from any simple or stable definition of truth” (p. 4) and that pragmatists “saw ‘the quest [End Page 424] for certainty’ as the future and misguided remnant of an outworn metaphysics” (p. 3). Again, the opposite is true. Peirce, James, and Dewey tried to formulate a definition of truth more stable than a correspondence theory—what is true may change, they acknowledged, but the definition of truth remains constant—and all three proposed certainty as the goal of inquiry. Only when certainty became infallibilistic was it to be abandoned. Dickstein concludes that pragmatists developed a “skeptical theory of knowledge” (p. 11), an assertion that belies Peirce’s scorn for Cartesian doubt, James’s radical empiricism, and Dewey’s trust in scientific method.
Subsequent contributions repeat these errors, betraying a notion of pragmatism ignorant of the founding texts, or derived from Rorty’s influential, but errant version of the past. After twenty years of adumbrating pragmatism as anti-essentialism, anti-foundationalism, liberal irony, and Davidsonism, Rorty here offers “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism.” In his provocative manner, which affirms broad simplifications and fanciful redescriptions with utter insouciance, Rorty turns pragmatism into an edifying tool. Rorty’s revision depends on the assertion that “James and Nietzsche say that there is no will to truth distinct from the will to happiness” (p. 22), a premise contrary to Nietzsche’s belief that the will to truth stemmed from the will to power (itself not a happiness-principle), and dismissive of James’s commitments to science and spiritualism.
An essay by Nancy Fraser argues for “Another Pragmatism” that can include Alain Locke and Critical Race theory. But Fraser’s basis for inclusion amounts to the banal observation that Locke considered race in practical terms, that race “has practical uses and effects” (p. 163). No criterion other than practical need enters into this polemic. An essay by Ross Posnock on Du Boisian pragmatism, though otherwise intelligent, invokes a similarly crude notion of pragmatism. Posnock interprets Du Bois as a pragmatist merely...